I’ve been trying to find a value bigger than our poisonous political situation to use for measuring my day. It’s hard, because we are all so angry from our particular sides of the political divide. We can argue about why that is; we can point fingers and, as the Nez Perce used to say,” put our nerves between our teeth” as we watch the infuriating political wranglings going on in our states and in our nation’s capital while this unseen death moves like a dark river across our country.
The bridge that I see is civility. I came at this from the down side: lack of civility is owned by neither end of the political spectrum. I see people filling the entire bed of a pick-up with boxes of toilet paper and, when confronted, yelling, “Make America Great Again!” And I see wealthy young women in our liberal stronghold here in Oregon wantonly parking their $80,000 SUVs in handicap spaces so they can push ahead of others into local toney, high end supermarkets. Like the virus itself, selfishness recognizes no boundaries.
Yes, we see moments of kindness all around us, and these are worth celebrating. But the opportunity for kindness is not always there. The opportunity for civility is. Civility is about respect for the “other.” It is about making them as important in our thinking as we make ourselves.
Whereas kindness requires a certain dynamic of movement — “I see something I can do that will make life better for another” — civility can be static and have no need for active issuance. It can be nothing more than quiet deference to the rights of another.
There are cultures where this is built into the psychology and social fabric. Sadly, it is not part of our American “rights of the individual” and “individual freedoms” mindset. But it is easily put into practice in our daily lives. It requires only thinking about the “other” before thinking about the “self.”
Years ago, in my literary firstborn, Letters to My Son, I wrote a chapter called, “Rainaldi’s Lesson.” It was based on a comment made by a junior high teacher of mine, Franklin Rainaldi – bless his soul wherever it may be – who pulled me aside one day and said, “You know, Nerburn, every sentence you say starts with the word ‘I’.”
It was a lightning bolt, a rapier strike, a koan. And it changed my life – if not in practice, at least in awareness. At its highest, it was a lesson in compassion and empathy. At its most ordinary, it was a lesson in civility because it took the “self” out of the center of my awareness and caused me to think about encounters from the point of view of the “other.”
In times of stress, where thoughts of self-survival are rumbling below the surface in all of us, where big thoughts lead us nowhere or to places where we don’t want to go, simple civility is a practice worth cultivating.
I can’t tell you how to practice civility. That’s its beauty – it is uniquely personal in both its understanding and its application. But if it has no simple definition, it does have an aura. As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said about pornography, he did not know exactly how to define it, but he knew it when he saw it.
We know civility when we see it. It is a moral posture, a personal carriage, a self-containment animated by respect for the sanctity of the encounter.
If I would offer you a thought for the day, it is this: Always look for opportunities to practice kindness, but be satisfied to move through the events of an ordinary day with civility. In your awareness, if not in your actions, put the “other” before the “self.”
These are times when close examination of our own behaviors can yield great awareness and spiritual dividends. We should take this opportunity to seek these out.
We need to make these days a time of growth. When this is over, we want to be better, not just relieved.